Politics Without Power I: What’s Your Program? Research Time, 16/05/2016

My friend DJT worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign this winter, as a political organizer in the early months of American Presidential primary season. Knocking on doors in New Hampshire, Michigan, and Pennsylvania was an incredible experience, and he learned a lot that we’re taking to Toronto to progress the causes and issues we care about.

American election processes are convoluted, over-complicated, and utterly weird pastiches of several different systems that never quite fit together in the end. Essentially, each state and territory of the country has its own vote within each major political party for which candidate will run on that party’s ticket in the country-wide election. 70-odd different local party votes on each team before country votes as a whole, technically for the party, not the candidate. 

In terms of marketing, Clinton has already established too
much support – through years of genuinely hard work at
political organizing – from the steadfast coalition of
Democrats who support Barack Obama for Sanders ever
to take down. But his critique was necessary to change
the policy conversations of America's elites.
Every American election, I feel so much happier to live in Canada where our elections are so much simpler. Even if they get a little more complicated, it’s still simple in comparison.

Where the United States stands on its vote right now is that Donald Trump has defeated all his rivals for the Republican nomination for President, and Hillary Clinton has an undefeatable lead, but Bernie Sanders won’t drop out of the race to hand it to her. This even though he can’t win the nomination anymore. 

It’s a campaign without a purpose. Sanders is just traveling to different states now as they hold their primaries, leading rallies and getting his supporters excited about what’s become a literally lost cause that refuses to die. The USA will either get its first female President or its first President-for-Life. The dream of the first Jewish President in 2017 is impossible now.

So the open question is why he continues to run. In the short form, Sanders has always been running an issues-oriented campaign. He ran to see if he could move the policy platform of the Democratic party along the lines of social democracy. He did this from his lifelong opposition to supply-favouring, new liberal ideas on economics that transformed politics in Europe and North America since the 1980s. 

His message resonated with so many people across the United States that he actually did have a good shot at winning the party nomination. And he adapted as best he could. But for a lot of reasons and causes, Sanders came up short. 

Yet he isn’t going away. This would seem silly in conventional ways of thinking about electoral politics. You run in an election to win an election. So once all possible routes to winning the election can no longer work, you drop out. 

But this reasoning completely misses what politics actually is. It’s not a horse race competing for office. That would just make politics an immensely expensive and complicated crowdsourced job application. 

We tend to think of political and social organizing more generally along the lines of election campaigns. As if you could only kick a real movement into gear if you had a clear, definable objective whose achievement would be an obvious sign of victory. You’d achieve your goal, then the movement would disperse and everyone would go home happy.

Reading Commonwealth, I feel like Antonio Negri was very in step with the times writing it. The book was published in 2009, and he identifies this idea of politics – clear goal, concrete steps to achieve it – as a seriously destructive distortion of reality. 

Why not both? Political activism is meant
to be fun. If it wasn't about joy, you may as
well just join the army.
This kind of mission and firm direction in a political movement implies that there has to be an authority underlying any kind of social action. A handbook from the central authority to explain what you’re doing, how what you’re doing relates to what everyone else is doing, and how what you’re doing contributes to achieving the overall goal.

And that’s a generous amount of shared information. Because the central directors of a political campaign don’t even need to tell their members that much if they can expect unquestioning obedience. Ours is not to reason why, etc, etc.

Just a couple of years after Commonwealth dropped, the Occupy movement blew up. And they faced a lot of the same criticisms. What’s the point of having a political movement if your goals – building a more equal, diverse, ecological sustainable society – were so general and vague that you’ll never know if you’re achieved them?

More than that, Occupy was also criticized for its incredible diversity. It often seemed as though every member of Occupy was part of a protest or its support structure for a different reason, a different purpose or goal. Without firm direction to achieve specific policy points, it was often said, the movement was useless at best, mutual masturbation at worst.

But think about it this way. Don’t you find it weird that people in a democratic society would say that you can only achieve your goals through unquestioning obedience to a small clique of campaign leaders? 

That doesn’t sound very democratic to me. Something else is going on here. . . . To be continued.

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